Empire Maker won the Florida Derby by a record 93/4 lengths.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- On a sunny Sunday morning at Gulfstream Park, a day after Empire Maker blew away the competition in the Florida Derby, Bobby Frankel recalled the first time he realized the strapping bay colt he'd been training was something special.
No, he said, the 93/4-length victory wasn't what convinced him that his long wait for a Kentucky Derby win might finally end May 3 at Churchill Downs. Frankel knew last summer he had a potential champion, even before he ever set eyes on Empire Maker.
All it took was a brief chat with manager Garrett O'Rourke of Juddmonte Farms, breeder and owner of the 3-year-old colt.
"This is your Kentucky Derby winner for 2003," O'Rourke told Frankel when describing Empire Maker, one of the new horses Juddmonte was placing in the trainer's care.
Frankel, to be sure, has heard this kind of talk from owners for decades. But never from Juddmonte, the worldwide breeding and racing operation owned by Prince Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
"I've had owners that send you crows and tell you they are the greatest things," Frankel said. "Juddmonte does not hype its horses. I know. I've trained a lot of their champions. If they say they have a nice horse, it usually ends up being a really nice horse."
The good-looking colt began fulfilling the hype early on. As an unraced 2-year-old, he worked in company with Medaglia d'Oro, now regarded as one of the top handicap horses in the world -- and beat him.
"I said, 'Whoa' when I saw that," Frankel said.
Won first race
Empire Maker also came through in his racing debut, winning his first time out by 31/2 lengths going a mile at Belmont on Oct. 20. A troubled start compromised his chances in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 30, and he still finished third behind Toccet. Then, in his 3-year-old bow, Empire Maker ran second by a length behind Man Among Men in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 7.
That's when Frankel decided to go for blinkers, used primarily to keep a horse focused on running. The move paid off as Empire Maker broke quickly in the Florida Derby, stayed just off the pace, took control around the far turn, and won by the widest margin in the 52-year history of the race.
"Without the blinkers, he'd get away from the gate in a bit of a tangle or a daze," jockey Jerry Bailey said.
After the Florida Derby, Frankel briefly considered training the colt up to the Kentucky Derby but reconsidered and went to the Wood.
Empire Maker won without running his hardest, and that's exactly what Frankel wanted in the final tuneup as the colt reaffirmed his status as the overwhelming Derby favorite. Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia has said he'll install Empire Maker as the 6-5 morning-line choice. And who knows? The colt could go off as the shortest priced favorite since Arazi finished eighth in 1992 at odds of 4-5.
"I'm confident, but I've been around long enough that you can't be that confident," said Frankel, 0-for-4 in the Derby. "Things happen. I'm just hoping. I'm trying not to get too excited."
14 others expected in field
About 14 rivals are expected to challenge Empire Maker, but not one of them -- not even stablemate Peace Rules -- comes close in terms of pedigree, performance or connections.
Empire Maker is regally bred, perfectly conditioned and in the hands of a Hall of Fame trainer and rider.
Empire Maker's sire is 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, who also won the Florida Derby and later that year took the Breeders' Cup Classic. His dam is Toussaud, who boasts four Grade 1 stakes winners -- a rare accomplishment -- as Empire Maker joined the distinguished group of Chester House, Honest Lady and Chiselling, all trained by Frankel.
Frankel and Bailey each have won Eclipse Awards -- Frankel as the nation's top trainer; Bailey as the top rider. They also have teamed up for an incredible run of big race wins since 2000 -- 14 Grade 1s, including six $1 million events.